With these words, legendary horserace announcer the late Chic Anderson began his call of the 104th running of the Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y., on June 9, 1973, at 5:38 p.m., and the 67,605 spectators in attendance and horse-racing fans watching on television around the world looked on breathlessly as an enormous red stallion named Secretariat, aka Red, aka known as Big Red, aka known as Superhorse, galloped his way into racing history by becoming the first horse in 25 years to win the coveted Triple Crown and setting a record on the 1.5-mile Belmont Park track that stands to this day.
I’ve had the privilege of watching a number of great sporting events during my lifetime, but none was any more thrilling than seeing that gorgeous horse blow away the field in the Belmont that day on his way to establishing himself as what many consider the greatest racehorse that ever lived. Now the story of this terrific thoroughbred is the subject of a fabulous film aptly titled simply “Secretariat,” and the movie is a fitting tribute to one of the sporting world’s true legends.
After the death of her mother, housewife and mother Penny Chenery Tweedy (Diane Lane) decides to take over the management of Meadow Stables, her ailing father’s rapidly declining horse farm. Penny’s brother, Hollis (Dylan Baker), urges her to sell the place, but she stubbornly refuses so that she can participate in a coin toss with Ogden Phipps (James Cromwell).
Phipps was an outrageously wealthy horse owner and breeder who had made a deal with Penney’s father. Phipps’s stallion Bold Ruler had impregnated two of Chenery’s mares, Hasty Matilda and SomethingRoyal. The arrangement was that the one who called the coin flip correctly would win the right to choose between the two foals before they were born. Phipps won the toss, and because Hasty Matilda was considerably younger than SomethingRoyal, he chose the foal from the former mare. This left Penny with the choice she had wanted in the first place, and SomethingRoyal gave birth to the colt that ultimately became one of the greatest racehorses in history. Although Penny and her staff referred to him throughout his life as Red and Big Red, the horse was required to have a more sophisticated name to race under, and Penny’s father’s longtime secretary came up with the racing name.
“Secretariat” is an absolutely wonderful film that just about everyone can enjoy. It achieves a great blend of drama, humor, and pathos, and it also tells the irresistibly heartwarming story of the bond between an owner and a horse that she continued to believe in when many others did not. As director Randall Wallace (“We Were Soldiers”) said in the film’s production notes, “The story is about heart – Secretariat’s and the heart of the woman who owned him. Both were greater than anyone imagined.”
Lane’s portrayal of Penny is typically superb because she brings to it the same quiet dignity, elegance, and class that she does to all the parts she plays. She has a marvelously expressive face that allows her to convey her thoughts and emotions without speaking, and she uses this ability to its fullest here.
She also has an excellent chemistry with John Malkovich, who plays Secretariat’s colorfully eccentric trainer Lucien Laurin. Their repartee in the film is often quite funny, but they play off one another beautifully, and I really cannot imagine any other actors in their respective parts.
Additional fine performances are turned in by Baker as Penny’s disagreeable brother, Cromwell as the arrogant but likable Phipps, Margo Martindale as Miss Ham, the faithful secretary to Penny’s father and the woman who gave Secretariat his racing name, Otto Thorwarth, the real life jockey who played Ron Turcotte, and Nelsan Ellis as Secretariat’s faithful groom Eddie Sweat.
Complementing the excellent acting in the film are the spectacular racing scenes that are so vivid that you often feel as if you are astride a mighty horse and thundering down the home stretch. The cinematography is brilliant, and the musical score is stunning. What more could you ask in a movie?
Since 1911 only 11 horses have won the Triple Crown (the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes), and when Secretariat did it in 1973, he ended a Triple Crown drought that had lasted for 25 years. Since his record-breaking performance in the Belmont Stakes, just two other horses have brought home the Triple Crown, and the last to do so was Affirmed in 1978. But Secretariat’s incredible 31-length victory over 1.5 miles remains unmatched today. He covered the distance in two minutes and 24 seconds, which means that his average speed was 37.5 mph. At one point during his call of the race Chic Anderson said, “Secretariat is widening now. He is moving like a tremendous machine.”
You really don’t have to be a horse lover to enjoy this film because in the production notes director Wallace pointed out that in addition to being a movie about a great horse, it has an even deeper meaning.
“I think this movie is about transcendence, about people and animals achieving more than anyone thought possible. It has an inspiring theme and story. It’s the powerful story of a horse and a woman who did what no one believed could be done. And it reminds us of the miracle of life, how life is bigger than we believe it can be.”
Every so often you watch a movie, and halfway into it you find yourself wishing that it won’t ever end. And when it is over, you could very easily stay in your seat and watch the next showing. That’s the effect “Secretariat” (Yes, it gets a 10!) had on me. It’s one of the best sports movies I’ve ever seen about one of the greatest performers in sports history. There have been outstanding racehorses in the past, and there will be more in the future. No doubt there will be more Triple Crown winners.
But there will never be another Big Red!
Actual footage of Secretariat’s run into the history books featuring Chic Anderson’s call